Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.

Of War and Virtue

One hundred fifty years ago the United States remained divided in a brutal war of rebellion. Rather than unusual, such convulsions are typical in the establishment of representative republics. It does not come easy for a population new to a republic to embrace in practice the idea that matters of life and wealth should be resolved by votes. It seems that the age old recourse to arms and blood has to be tried again a time or two before people, who have only experienced more abusive government, come to accept that ballots and representation, enshrined in the rule of law, are a better way of deciding a society’s important issues.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1864, the people of the young United States were still learning that painful lesson. But the instruction was nearing its end. Back in July of 1863, at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the outcome of the war became inevitable. The rebels of the southern states were going to lose, constitutional government of the United States was going to succeed. The only chance for the rebels would be if the loyal people of the nation lost their determination to persevere to reunite the nation and reaffirm the constitutional republic. Often that seemed in the press to be an iffy question, but in reality the republican will remained strong. The hundreds of thousands who sacrificed life and limb in the field of war, in an overwhelmingly volunteer army (the number of drafted soldiers remained relatively minor), testified to that determination.

In the winter of 1863-64 U.S. soldiers in the field reenlisted in large numbers. Throughout 1864, and into the Spring of 1865, many thousands more would die, but the battles were becoming increasingly futile for the rebel cause, little more than adding to the destruction and suffering that rebel commanders were pulling down upon themselves and their fellows and families in this national lesson in self-government.

For the rebel soldier, experiencing defeat after defeat to his regiment, his corps, or his tattered army—with only occasional respites and temporary successes—it all may have felt pointless. The high and growing rate of desertion from rebel armies in those days suggests so. The historian comes to this point in the conflict and is tempted to describe the remaining rebel heroics and gallant but failing defenses as futile, the casualty lists a bloody tally of worthless and wasted sacrifice—particularly for so ignoble a cause as breaking up the best form of government on the earth at the time.

From the perspective of the rebel “cause” it was pointless, the continued bloodshed and destruction a burden for which the rebel leaders—in the rebel government and at the head of the rebel armies—will surely have to give an accounting before the Judge who weighs the doings of nations and those who lead them. Does that mean, therefore, that the daily struggle of the individual rebel soldier was meaningless? His effort could not change the outcome, only affect in some small way its overall cost.

And yet, throughout 1864 and to the end of the war, there were meaningful and often pitched battles fought on every field of action. The battles to which I refer echo a passage from The Book of Mormon written almost two thousand years before, describing an ancient American people after a very long war:

But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility. (Alma 62:41)

War, on a very personal level, appears to accelerate moral development. Individuals become more virtuous or more evil more quickly than they might under more peaceful conditions.

I believe that for the individual rebel soldier, as for perhaps every soldier, the real battle was his own, and in the end it was the most important battle with the most long-lasting consequences. Abraham Lincoln understated that the world would “little note, nor long remember” his speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though he perhaps correctly predicted that the world would never forget the great battle fought there.

In the full scheme of things, in terms of what really matters in the eternal worlds after this temporary one is rolled up and its purposes completed, the individual battles fought by each soldier on each side will be recognized as far more important than the whole Battle of Gettysburg. The battle of armies is a temporary one. The battle fought by each soldier, whether he exercises virtues or chooses vices, is the more permanent, the one that has never ending consequences. The battles of freedom were fought in recognition and preservation of these more important personal struggles we all have.

In the battles of 1864 and 1865 of the American War of the Rebellion the rebel soldier could not change the outcome of the war. But in each case his own personal triumph or defeat was there to be etched into his character more permanently than the scars of bullet and saber in his flesh.

As my son has often reminded me, everyone who fought in the Civil War died. And all of them lived. So must we all die, and yet we will all live again where there is no more death. By the time each of us leaves mortality, each must face and fight his battles, the ones that really matter far above those recorded in the history books of the world.